The Great Honshu Circumnavigation

May 21, 2012

When I looked at a map of Japan to find Niigata, I noticed that a train line ran all the way from the coastal city hosting our conference to Kyōto, the tracks flirting with the shores of the Sea of Japan (日本海, “Japan Sea”).  I’d been encouraged to visit Kyōto, and as this was my third trip to Japan without yet visiting the ancient capital, I figured now was the time to go.  With a week-long JR rail pass, I decided to take the trains from Niigata to Kyōto, rather than pass back through Tōkyō and down to Kyōto, a route I’d taken eight times in the last ten months.

After the eclipse, I boarded a local train in Niigata.  Past flooded rice fields, mountains flecked with snow, and a placid coastline, the trains rumbled and sped, me as practically the only passenger in most cars as we passed the tail end of springtime on Honshū (本州, “main province”), the main island of Japan.

My route for the first part of the day looked something like the following, flitting along coastline and occasionally darting inland before returning to the seashore.


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There was an outdoor farmers market!  This was the first I’ve seen in my journeys around Japan.

Big pieces of train machinery were parked at stations.

Tourism posters for Yamaguchi, 山口, Mountain Gateway.

Rice paddies were flooded and being attended.

Snow clung to the tops of the mountains, stubborn in the warm sun.

Yellow flowers bordered flooded fields.

We crossed tamed rivers and wild forests.

This man had huge boots.

Finally, we pulled along the ocean.

A waterfall!

Torii climbing up the rocks.

Some roofs were particularly shiny, ぴかぴか.

I purchased a hard-boiled egg, which came with instructions on how to “unwrap” it.

The train I took from Kanazawa (金沢, golden swamp) to Kyoto (京都, capital capital) was known as the Thunderbird.

Was the longer route from Niigata to Kyōto worth an extra few hours, as compared to heading back to Tōkyō then continuing to Kyōto?  I think so: the Shinkansen tracks from Niigata to Tōkyō go mostly through tunnels in the alps, so the views of the mountains are diminished.  I’d ridden the route from Tōkyō to Kyōto eight times; I wanted a change of scenery.  Plus, the forecast for Tōkyō was cloudy and rainy, which was part of the reason we’d remained in Niigata to see the annular eclipse.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this route for sightseeing: there are certainly prettier ways to spend six or seven hours by train in Japan.  For me, it was a lovely change of pace from the conference, from cities, and from rain, and it afforded me a view of farming beyond just rice in Japan.  Seeing poorer communities and tiny villages that didn’t depend on farming for their subsidence was refreshing; I’m glad I saw how another portion of Japan lives.

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